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The Sana’a Center Conversation

By December 11, 2020News, Print

Q&A with Gerald Feierstein and Michael Patrick Mulroy

The Conversation

Q&A with Gerald Feierstein and Michael Patrick Mulroy

The United States has often played an outsized role in Yemen’s affairs, whether through its political influence or its drone program. In this interview, the Sana’a Center speaks to former US ambassador Gerald Feierstein (GF) about his time in Yemen, the Arab Spring, and watching Ali Abdullah Saleh depart. Joining Feierstein was Michael Mulroy (MM), a former assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, who spoke about the Yemen Steering Initiative and the new version of the program he and Ambassador Feierstein are spearheading.   

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

SC: Let’s start, Mr. Ambassador, with you. You were the Ambassador to Yemen during the Arab Spring. Obviously, you were there during the will-he-won’t-he dance on whether Ali Abdullah Saleh was going to step down. Looking back at it, what do you think the US got right in its policy in Yemen at that point, and what in retrospect do you think the US could have or should have done differently?

GF: Could have and should have are two different things, of course. What I would say is that the whole issue of where the US government would come out on the Arab Spring in Yemen and where we should put our weight was really an open question in Washington. There were different views, and a lot of it had to do with the particular interest of the agencies involved. Particularly for those organizations that were deeply involved in the whole counterterrorism campaign and working with the government of Yemen, there was a reluctance really to abandon Ali Abdullah Saleh.  So there was a lot of back and forth, I would say, between those of us like myself who believed that we really needed to get behind the transition, and needed to support the movement and that we could help push towards a new, more open, more democratic, more balanced society in Yemen, and those who said, you know, the US interest is counterterrorism, it’s not the domestic policies of Yemen, we should just stick with Ali Abdullah Saleh, even though I think we all know that Ali Abdullah Saleh was less than a perfect partner for us in the counterterrorism campaign.

We eventually won the argument and the US got behind it. And I think that was important because my own view is that if the United States had not been supportive of the political transition, the international community wouldn’t have been supportive, and I think that the outcome would have been entirely different.

In terms of how it came about, a lot of Yemenis say “the international community really undersold us” or “pulled the rug out from under us.” The reality, I think, is that those Yemenis who believe that the entire population was supportive of the transition have a kind of misplaced recollection.

My recollection was that the society was really divided, pretty much 50-50. There was no strong, overwhelming movement against Saleh. In fact, he retained a lot of support going forward. My recollection is that we had a fairly weak hand to play in pushing Saleh towards stepping down, and it could have easily gone the other way. People told me, after it was all over and after Saleh had left his position, that he expressed some regret that he made the decision he did, and (he) expressed some admiration for Bashar al-Assad and said that if he had to do it over again, he would do what Assad did.

That would have pushed Yemen into this conflict five years before it actually broke out. We had to make accommodations, we had to compromise, and therefore we did some things that, frankly speaking, helped exacerbate the situation afterwards, particularly the idea that Saleh could remain in Yemen, that he could continue to play a role in the political life of the country, that he was going to be immune from prosecution. All of those were things we had to trade in exchange for getting him to accept the decision to stand down.

Now, should we have done something different? Should we have pressed harder on that? Again, I don’t think we could have won that argument. But, in retrospect, obviously, it is something that is disappointing.

SC: You mentioned you had a weak hand; what were the leverage points that helped push Saleh to step down when he finally did in early 2012?

GF: In a sense, Saleh did it to himself, oddly enough, because, remember, the massacre in Tahrir Square, and Ali Mohsen going on TV immediately afterwards, and saying that he was breaking with Saleh and he was going to join the opposition movement. Saleh got scared, and thought that if Ali Mohsen left, he would lose the entire military, which turned out not to be the case of course, but that’s what he thought. So, at that point, he called people and told them that he was ready to step down. In fact, he was ready to step down that week.

SC: And if I remember, that was March of—

GF: 2011. March 2011. He initiated a process of negotiation and he said, I will step down provided that you can come up with a transition agreement that’s consistent with Yemen’s constitution. … I wasn’t part of the negotiation, but I was there to kind of keep everyone honest. That went on for about three or four days until things settled down a little bit, and Saleh had a lot of people from [the General People’s Congress party] GPC coming and saying, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” The rumor was, some of them were threatening Saleh that if he stepped down, they would kill him — some of his GPC people. He backed off of that, and he abandoned that initiative, but he had opened the door to transition. From that point on, the issue wasn’t really whether he would step down; it was what would be the circumstances by which he would agree to step down. That’s when we really started going through the negotiating process, coming up with what eventually became the GCC initiative.

Working through that, we got to the point in May 2011 where the agreement was done. Both sides, the GPC and the [opposition alliance Joint Meeting Parties] JMP, had agreed to the terms of the transition. We got the opposition figures — this was May 21 as Saleh insisted that it had to be done on National Day. The JMP signed the night before. And then the next day, we were to go over to the presidential palace and the GPC was going to sign. And then, I don’t know if you remember this, we got into this bizarre thing where we were all at the Emirati embassy, and Saleh had his thugs surround the embassy and hold us hostage because the people were demanding that we not pursue this thing. That went on all day. It was a huge, kind of ridiculous joke.

Finally, I think it was [former prime minister] Abdul Karim al-Eryani that convinced Saleh that he had to go through with this. A couple of us — myself and [Abdullatif bin Rashid] Al-Zayani, the Gulf Cooperation Council secretary general — went over to the presidential palace with the agreement to get everyone to sign. We walked into the hall, and he had all the TV cameras, and everyone was there, all of his party was there. He had everyone sign. The last person left to sign was Ali Abdullah Saleh, and he refused. What do you mean you refuse? You agreed to this already. No, he’s not going to sign it. He refused to sign it. It’s kind of like the situation we are in now. He would not concede. Then, we said ok, forget it, and we left. It was of course a week or so later, at the beginning of June, when the assassination attempt in the mosque happened, and then Saleh ended up going off to Riyadh for recuperation. A number of his people were killed. It continued all through the summer. When he came back in September, the whole thing started again, and I’ll tell you, what finally forced Saleh’s hand was that [Saudi] King Abdullah called up and said, “This is it. It’s over. You have to sign.” Then I think Saleh was cornered, and he had to sign.

SC: Ok. I’m going to turn to Mick now. Mick, you served as a Marine officer, CIA officer, and then, most recently, you were the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East during the first two years of the Trump administration. Could you explain the Yemen Steering Initiative (YSI)?

MM:  The YSI was initiated inside the Defense Department; we were just one small part of that — the security side of it, the military side of it. The plan included diplomacy, economics, humanitarian issues and security.

SC: But the plan itself didn’t bring about a whole lot of change; it just sort of hit a ceiling at the political level and wasn’t really implemented. That’s one of the ways that you guys are now moving on to the YSI 2.0, is that correct?

MM: That’s correct. A lot of effort went into it, I think it’s a fairly good product, but it just didn’t have interest. Part of the reason every time we’ve talked to people on the Hill, they just wanted to discontinue and disengage in Yemen, and then people in the administration weren’t interested. It just didn’t go anywhere, and I think the ambassador can validate this as well, we may have a better opportunity now that there will be a different administration, and that’s why we’re really trying to put it together now so that we can present it if they’re willing to let us.

SC: So, maybe you can walk through your plans for the Steering Initiative 2.0, where it sits, what the goals are and where you are at with that program.

GF: The YSI is predicated on the notion that we’re in a post-conflict environment. The predicate to the YSI is that the UN special envoy’s effort succeeds, and that you do get into a situation where you can begin to address some of these endemic problems inside of Yemen.

My anticipation is that the Biden administration will go back more or less to where we were with Obama. Again, not in the sense that we are going to change our position or our policy, but I think you might see a willingness on the part of the Biden administration to put a little more shoulder, a little more muscle, into trying to support the UN process, trying to get the parties back to the table to agree on a negotiation. I think that might succeed. The other element, we can extrapolate and expand on this as much as we want, it is accordion-like, but if you’re anticipating that there is going to be a change in the nature of US-Iranian engagement, and if there’s going to be an overall reduction of tension in the region, which is certainly where the Biden people say that they want to go, then you can anticipate the possibility that may take some of the pressure off reaching a deal in Yemen, and that the Iranians might no longer see they need to keep the heat on Saudi Arabia by maintaining their presence in Yemen and maintaining the conflict in Yemen.

There is, I think, a window of opportunity in front of us. I think you’re going to see the US more engaged on Yemen, which is going to bring more support from the international community. I think if the US is more engaged, the Brits will be more engaged, maybe the Security Council will be more engaged. If there is an overall reduction in the tension in the region, it might mean that Yemen once again becomes the low-hanging fruit of moving forward and getting out of the situation that we’re in right now. That then opens the door to the YSI.

SC: Will the Biden administration truly cut off support to Saudi Arabia? And if the US does do that and forces Saudi to end its war, what’s step number two?

GF: Again, all good questions. What I would say is, in terms of US-Saudi (relations), I don’t have any doubt in my mind that the Biden administration is going to reintroduce American values — human rights, civil liberties — into the equation as we define our relationships around the world. 

The last point that I’ll make, and it kind of goes to your last question, which is, and then what? My own position on this is, ok, you’re going to cut off the Saudis, you’re going to tell them that we’re not going to support them in Yemen anymore, we’re going to basically emasculate them, destroy their defense capability, whatever you’re going to do, and then we’re going to force an end to the conflict in Yemen. Ok, that’s great. Now what?

Does anyone believe that Yemen can be reconstructed, that anybody is going to put the tens of billions of dollars that are required to rebuild Yemen, without the Saudis? The United States isn’t going to do it. The Europeans aren’t going to do it. Iran isn’t going to do it. If the Saudis walk away from it and say, ‘we’re not satisfied with the way this has come out, we see that Yemen is now a persistent threat to our security and we’re not going to lift a finger to help them,’ who’s going to keep Yemen together? Who is going to help them rebuild? Nobody.

We need the Saudis now. We need the Saudis in the future. YSI doesn’t work unless the Saudis are full partners to it. So, that’s the answer to ‘and then what?’ The last point I’ll make, and it goes back, let me just reiterate, we can say what we want about the failure of the Saudi military campaign. There’s no question, although it sometimes annoys me, that all of the things that we accuse the Saudis of doing wrong in Yemen, we’ve done wrong ourselves in Afghanistan and all over the world. Have we hit wedding parties, have we destroyed schools, have we done all that and then some? Of course we have. Not because we are maligned or malicious. These things happen. And it’s happened in Yemen too, and it is tragic, and you hate to see it happen, but it’s not, I don’t think, intentional on the Saudi part.

In any event, whatever you say about their military campaign, when the issue came before the Obama Administration in 2014, 2015, after the Houthis moved into Sana’a, when we were talking to the Saudis saying you need to do something to help Hadi, this was before the war started, and the Saudis were saying, no, we’re not going to get involved, we’re upset, we’re frustrated with Hadi, we aren’t going to do anything. Then the war started. We never disagreed, and I still don’t disagree with the basic Saudi perspective, and the basic Saudi red lines, which I believe are three: I think the Saudis are perfectly legitimate in saying they want security on their southern border, they want a government in Sana’a that they can work with, that is cooperative with them, and they want to be assured that there is not going to be a persistent [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] IRCG or Hezbollah presence in Yemen that is going to threaten them in the same way that Hezbollah threatens Israel on its northern border. I think that those are the three Saudi red lines. 

If the United States reasserts itself and tries to reach an agreement in Yemen, if we get fully behind [UN Special Envoy] Martin Griffiths, if we begin to push ourselves to try to get the parties back to the table and succeed, I think that the Saudis will be delighted if we are successful, because I believe myself that they have wanted to get out of this conflict for the last four years, as long as what we respect their red lines.

If we can do that, if we can help get that deal, then I think that we and the Saudis are on the same page and everything is fine. I mean, look, we’ve had these issues with the Saudis on human rights and all this stuff for decades; it’s not going to go away. Both sides know how to work around it. We can do that. I think that the important thing is to make sure that Yemen comes out in a way that doesn’t break the US-Saudi relationship.

SC: I can see how that would help the United States and Saudi Arabia, the question then is, how does it work with the Houthis? If the Houthis aren’t willing to give up at the negotiating table what they’ve won on the battlefield, then is there really any deal to be had?

GF: When I was still in Sana’a and trying to engage the Houthis, I had some meetings with them. They were not terribly successful or meaningful, but the one person the Houthis were desperate to talk to was the Saudi ambassador. In 2016, there was a lot of exchange back and forth. My view has always been that the Houthis are not stupid. They know who is on their border. They know that Iran is far away and not able to do very much for them. I have always been of the view that, under the right set of circumstances, the Houthis will abandon their relationship with Iran and go with the Saudis. The Saudis believe that themselves by the way. So, I think that’s not out of the question that you can do that. I think it would require the Houthis to have a seat at the table in the political process going forward. You can manage that. The big issue again is that it can’t be a Houthi government. Houthis can be a part of the government, but as long as the Saudis feel comfortable that they have friends in Sana’a, they will be ok, and I think the Houthis will get what they need.